Pure Flix Aims to Be Faith-Based Version of Netflix, But Wants to Reach Wider Audience

Andrea Logan White and David A.R. White at the party following the premiere of “The Case for Christ.” (Credit: Whitten Sabbatini for The New York Times)
Andrea Logan White and David A.R. White at the party following the premiere of “The Case for Christ.” (Credit: Whitten Sabbatini for The New York Times)

Before breakfast at Sixteen, a restaurant in the Trump International Hotel and Tower here the morning after the premiere for the film “The Case for Christ,” David A. R. White and Andrea Logan White requested a pause.

“Hold on, I want to say grace,” Mr. White said to this reporter, whose mouth was already stuffed full of bacon. “Bless us, Lord, thanks so much for this day,” he went on, concluding: “I love you. Thanks so much for the movie.”

The disconnect between the mainstream news media and evangelical Christians is also a major theme of “The Case for Christ.” Based on the best-selling book written by Lee Strobel, a former journalist at The Chicago Tribune, the movie depicts his process of going from a hard-nosed newsman and atheist to a devout Christian and minister.

It was produced by Pure Flix, a faith-based entertainment production and distribution company in Scottsdale, Ariz., that Mr. White helped found in 2005. In June 2015, the company introduced an on-demand streaming service. While Netflix denizens devour series like “13 Reasons Why” and “Breaking Bad,” PureFlix.com offers bingeable programming like “The American Bible Challenge,” a game show hosted by Jeff Foxworthy; “Family Affair,” a sitcom starring Brian Keith that ran from 1966 to 1971; “The Encounter,” a Pure Flix original scripted series about people who are visited by Jesus; and stand-up comedy from Sinbad and Louie Anderson. Next up is “Hilton Head Island,” a soap opera starring Antonio Sabato Jr. It also streams sermons and documentaries for parents who home-school.

Last month, PureFlix.com had nearly 715,000 unique visitors, according to Alexa, a website traffic analytics company. Greg Gudorf, chief executive of PureFlix.com, said the service’s nearly 250,000 paying subscribers could choose from a catalog of more than 7,500 titles. “We’ve been blessed with really strong growth,” he said.

Mr. White, whose book, “Between Heaven and Hollywood,” was published last fall by Zondervan, wants to make films, sitcoms and serialized dramas with family-friendly or religious messages. “Our God-given dream was to provide content on a consistent basis to be an alternative to what Hollywood was putting it out,” he said.

Mr. White, who was raised a Mennonite in rural Kansas, saw just one secular film in a theater before he turned 18. (“The Mennonites make the Mormons look like a pack of Hell’s Angels,” he said.) A friend’s parents took him to see “Grease” and “when Olivia Newton-John came out in black tights and I thought for sure I was going to hell,” he said. This was enough to persuade him to drop out of Bible college after one year. His goal was to serve God through acting, but then he became interested in production, too. Pure Flix has made hundreds of films (“Do You Believe?” starring Cybill Shepherd), sitcoms, serialized dramas and web series including “On the White Track,” which stars Mr. White and his wife.

On-demand services allow Christians of different disciplines to find content that speaks to their individual interests and beliefs. A theatrical feature film can be a tougher sell to a religious population with many different denominations.

“In the Christian faith, there are divisions with all the sects,” Mr. White said. “The Baptists won’t talk to the Assemblies of God. You have your charismatic Christians. You have your ultraconservatives, like Southern Baptists. You have Catholicism. They’re all a little different.” But, he added, invoking the Rev. Billy Graham, “The foot of the cross is level ground.”

The 2014 Pure Flix theatrical release “God’s Not Dead” found the level ground. It earned more than $60 million at the box office. (Mr. White was a star of the film, and it features Korie and Willie Robertson of “Duck Dynasty.”)

“The Case for Christ” also focuses on a theme that binds all Christians, the resurrection of Jesus. Set in 1980 and decked out with the cars, pastel clothes, handlebar mustaches and smoky newsrooms that conjure the dawn of Reagan’s America, the movie was filmed over six weeks in Atlanta and cost more than $4 million to make. It stars Mike Vogel (recently of the Syfy network’s mini-series “Childhood’s End”), the Tony-winning actress L. Scott Caldwell and Erika Christensen (known for her six-season work on the NBC show “Parenthood”). There are cameos from Robert Forster and Faye Dunaway.

On the film’s marketing poster, Mr. Vogel’s character gazes at a red Time magazine cover from 1966 that asks, “Is God Dead?” (As it happens, Time repurposed the cover for a March 2017 edition, but the modern-day headline read, “Is Truth Dead?”)

The film earned mostly favorable reviews from the small mainstream publications. It received an A-plus CinemaScore, measuring audience appeal, and has a 77 percent favorability mark from Rotten Tomatoes.

By the end of its first two weekends in more than 1,000 theaters around the country, the movie had brought in about $9 million, perhaps less than Mr. White and his partners had hoped for but still delivering a tidy profit.

Thanks to President Trump’s popularity among evangelicals and discussions of “fake news” abounding on the internet, the film has considerable resonance.

“If you watch CNN or Fox, you feel like it’s two different worlds,” said Michael Scott, a founder of Pure Flix and a producer of the film. “Here, you have something similar, you have an atheistic journalist investigating the claims for Christ. There are some similarities even though it was taking place more than 30 years ago.”

Speaking near the red carpet before the screening, Mr. Scott, also the chief executive of Pure Flix, was upbeat and gregarious, if a little nervous. Soon he would need to introduce the film with a list of thank yous “as long as the Bible,” he said. He was standing with Shawn Boskie, who was a pitcher with the Chicago Cubs and is Pure Flix’s vice president for investor relations. (A Q. and A. session after the screening was conducted by Kirk Cousins, a quarterback for the Washington Redskins.)

Mr. Scott was wearing a red-stripe tie that Mr. Boskie bought for him at Trump Tower in New York. Earlier in the evening, Mr. Scott had been yearning for a pair of scissors to help nip a tag hanging from the back of the tie. He didn’t want to just yank it off. “The tie was made in China,” he said.

Us Weekly was not represented on the news media line, but The National Catholic Register and Movieguide were. “This is like ‘All The President’s Men’ journalism before so much of it was doubted and before there were so many different journalists writing for so many different media,” said Jon Gunn, the movie’s director, of his protagonist’s search for answers. “Back when people had notebooks and pens and spoke face to face.”

But the film’s character connects to modern opinions of the news media, too, he said. Mr. Strobel’s character “is a skeptic who says he’s being evenhanded and unbiased but he’s looking to debunk Christianity so he’s not as unbiased as he should be.”

Mr. and Ms. White sidled up to Mr. Gunn and his wife, Lisa, to say hello. Mr. Gunn and Mr. White have known each other for years. Mr. White starred along with Eric Roberts in 2000’s “Mercy Streets,” Mr. Gunn’s first feature film, in which Ms. Gunn, an actress, also had a role.

“I got to make out with his wife for ‘Mercy Streets,’” Mr. White said with a big laugh.

Mr. Gunn said, “Andrea and I are still waiting for our turn.”

“Oh, it’s getting chilly in here,” Mr. White said. Ms. White, who met her husband at a church in Malibu, Calif., when she had blond dreadlocks and was working as a personal trainer, rolled her eyes. “I’ve never been a rainbow-and-unicorn Christian,” she said later.

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SOURCE: The New York Times
Katherine Rosman

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